Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Basics

Types of Search Results

Most Internet search engines present two kinds of results when a user enters a search term and clicks “submit.” The first are so called “organic results.” Engines present these results by querying an enormous database of Web content and the associated URLs that the engine has collected or purchased. Search engines build these databases using automated tools to “crawl” sites (navigate from hyperlink to hyperlink through and across sites) in order to collect and classify their content.

The most important way that search engines compete for users is by striving to present the most relevant and interesting organic results to searchers. It is important to understand that searchers are the engines’ only concern, and for this reason, they will happily discriminate -in favor of large sites, in favor of frequently updated sites, and in favor of sites that, according to their algorithms, will be of most interest to searchers. It is completely irrelevant how artistic a site is, how hard its creators worked on the site or how deserving the site is of traffic --- the engine will present results only according to its automated criteria.

The second type of search result presented by Internet search engines is called “sponsored listings.” Sponsored listings are listings paid for by advertisers who are charged by the engine each time a user actually clicks their link. These are displayed based on advertisers' decisions about which keywords they would like their ad presented for (e.g. iData advertises on Google for the term “Cleveland Web Design”), and the order sponsored listings are displayed in is determined based on advertiser’s bids for position --- a higher bid means that the advertiser’s ad appears nearer the top. Sponsored listings (commonly called “pay-per-click”) should also be considered as part any company’s marketing mix along with organic search results. Pay-per-click is widely considered an excellent advertising value because results are targeted to people looking for terms related to the advertiser’s products, and the advertiser only pays when a user actually clicks through to the advertiser’s site.

What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

Since a high position in organic search result listings is an advertising windfall to listed companies, a rapidly growing industry of search engine optimization (SEO) firms exists that try to get their clients’ sites listed. SEO firms study search engine algorithms (by trial and error, since these algorithms are not public) and try to make their client’s sites match the profile that the SEO firm believes search engines are looking for.

Sometimes, these tactics are in line with the mission and goals of the engines (white-hat tactics), and sometimes they are attempts to trick or short-circuit the engines (black-hat tactics). Search engines tend to cooperate with white-hat optimizers, but they have responded aggressively to black-hat tactics with measures designed to ferret out and punish them, including by banning the improperly optimized sites’ URLs and IP addresses. For this reason, black-hat tactics are also called “high-risk” because they carry a risk that the optimized site will be banned --- either immediately or with the next algorithm update.

The key low-risk optimization strategies entail giving the engines information to crawl (i.e. site content) that will be of interest to search users and ensuring that this information is presented in a way that engines can follow it (site optimization). The primary element of this kind of strategy is content --- having content relevant to the search terms that the site wants to be found under. A second key element is links to the site --- the search engines believe that if lots of good sites link to a site it must be important. However, engines will punish attempts to generate links solely to manipulate the engines (SEO “link farms”).

How Search Engines Rank Content

In evaluating whether to display a given Web page toward the top of a list of results when a user searches with a given keyphrase, search engines primarily evaluate three areas of the content of the page:

The page URL: This is a critically important factor to search engines in trying to determine what a page is about and thus whether to rank it toward the top of their results for a given search phrase. This stands to reason --- for the search phrase “Volkswagen Parts” a page called VolkswagenParts.htm seems more likely to be relevant than a page called Category.asp (a common page name on large e-commerce sites). This means that VolkswagenParts.htm would probably rank higher, even if it had far fewer parts than were displayed on Category.asp.

The page Title: This is also an important factor to search engines in trying to determine whether a page is relevant for a given search phrase. The logic is essentially that there is only one page title on a page, and if the webmaster has set the page title to be Volkswagen Parts, for example, then that is probably what the page is about.

Links: The text of links on the page is also important. The logic here is that a page with lots of links to Volkswagen parts pages is probably relevant to a search for Volkswagen parts.

Alt Text in Images: This is the text that shows up if an image does not load, and it is assumed to tell users something about the image. This is considered important because, again, a page with lots of pictures of Volkswagen parts is probably relevant to a search on that term.

Body Text: Finally, the actual text of a page, minus links and images is considered. This is critical because the words on the page at the end of the day really determine what it is about.

In evaluating all of these areas, search engines look at:

  • the frequency that the selected keyword appears in the text of the page,
  • the prominence of the keyword in the page content (i.e. how close to the front the keyword or phrase appears), and
  • the length of the element

Contact iData to learn more about our Search Engine Optimization services.